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The rise and fall of CDOs (Chief Diversity Officers)

Corporate professionals talking

What is a CDO (Chief Diversity Officer)?

CDO or Chief Diversity Officer (sometimes titled Chief Inclusion Officer, etc.) ensures the company culture can support (and encourage) diversity at all levels. They often focus on diverse recruiting, diversity training, addressing discrimination issues, collecting demographic and representation data, and advising their superiors about diversity-related issues. (Indeed)

Not only do Chief Diversity Officers ensure the company is diverse and achieves its diversity benchmarks, but they also ensure the company follows employment laws such as the Equal Pay Act (1963), Civil Rights Act (1964), etc.

The rise of CDO's

In 2020, after the murder of George Floyd, companies felt pressured to respond to the public’s concern about racism and diversity. With minority numbers rising in the U.S., the demand for representation and inclusion in the media and the workplace has also increased. (NYTimes)

This change led companies to hire Chief Diversity Officers– in fact, CDOs were the fastest growing C-suite position in 2020 and 2021, with a 168.9% growth in hires from 2019-2022. (Bloomberg)

The fall of CDO’s

Despite this new “value” for DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) and CDOs, companies did little to help support their new positions. According to HBR, “CDOs reported that leadership lacked true strategic commitment and accountability, stymying real progress.” Without strategy and KPIs, DEI became a performative statement for the company rather than creating the promised change.

This is exhausting for CDOs and the minorities impacted in the company. In fact, the 2023 DDI Report found that women are 1.5x more likely to leave their companies to advance their careers than men. The lack of commitment to DEI affects talent and retention in leadership positions– minorities no longer trust their leaders.

With falling numbers and a seemingly failed DEI “plan,” companies no longer see the benefits of having a CDO. CDOs have become the only ones in the top-10 growing roles to see reverse hiring trends in 2021 and 2022, with a 4.5% decline in hires. (Bloomberg)

In 2023, the situation is even more dire. After attacks on DEI programs in Universities and the overruling of Affirmative Action, companies are questioning whether or not DEI is necessary and are using this opportunity to cut back on CDOs. In June, Disney, Warner Bros, Netflix, and the Film Academy's CDOs were all laid off for “various reasons.”

DEI is not a failure – companies that lack leadership commitment and support but expect results are what leads to failure. And the data still proves it.

The 2023 DDI Report States that organizations that financially outperform industry competitors have more leadership diversity. And beyond the financial benefits, organizations that are developing more high-potential leaders from diverse backgrounds are also:

  • 11X more likely to have high-quality leaders overall.

  • 10X more likely to have a strong leadership bench.

  • 4X more likely to have leaders who understand and act on changing customer needs and perspectives.

  • 3.2X more likely to engage and retain top talent.


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